Being Punjabi: Unfolding the Surrey Story exhibit

Museum of Surrey

The Museum of Surrey has been nominated for a 2020 BCMA Outstanding Achievement Award, Excellence in Exhibitions Award for their exhibit “Being Punjabi: Unfolding the Surrey Story exhibit,” which used an innovative and ground-breaking methodology to provide agency and voice to a historically marginalized community.

The development of Being Punjabi: Unfolding the Surrey Story was innovative and established a best practice approach to community exhibit development at the Museum of Surrey (MOS). Over a three-year period, MOS staff learned how to become facilitators rather than traditional museum curators. Surrey’s Punjabi community led the planning process and made all final decisions.

 

The exhibit’s goals, big idea, and sub-themes were established entirely by the Punjabi Advisory Committee (PAC). Exhibit content, such as objects, photos, videos, and art works, was gathered from Surrey’s broader Punjabi community. Colonial museums have traditionally determined what is “of value” and whether it belongs in an exhibit. Stories and objects of BIPOC communities have been purposefully neglected or rewritten and whitewashed. For this exhibit, everything put forward was valuable because the community member chose it and therefore deemed it so. Thus, nothing was refused: every artifact, every photograph, every story, every art piece was included in the exhibit. The result was an exhibition that focused on true visibility, diversity of Punjabi voices, and an authentic representation of Surrey’s Punjabi community.

The planning, organization and community engagement behind Being Punjabi deeply impacted the organization as a whole. Though the exhibit was located in the feature gallery, Punjabi stories and knowledge permeated throughout the museum. Across all MOS departments, additional programming and exhibit work was carried out using the new “museum as facilitator” model.

A first of its kind, the Being Punjabi exhibit was innovative because it was community-led and community-sourced. All major decisions about the exhibit were made by the PAC. This included the requirement of showing the true diversity of Punjabi experience in Surrey. To make sure this was reflected in the exhibit, MOS staff went to great lengths to reach out to the community. According to verbal and written visitor feedback, the exhibit was well received by Surrey’s Punjabi community. Visitors saw themselves in the exhibit; they resonated with the stories and objects. Perspectives presented in the exhibit provided a legitimacy to the diverse contributions of the community, especially those often-unsung struggles and successes of daily life.